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May 26, 7:32 AM EDT

Yemen's pro-government forces retake city from Shite rebels

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AP Photo/Hani Mohammed

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Yemen's pro-government forces retake city from Shite rebels

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SANAA, Yemen (AP) -- Yemen's pro-government fighters have pushed out Shite rebels and their allies and retaken a southern city that's the gateway to the port of Aden in their first significant advance since a Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes on the rebel group, officials said Tuesday.

Coalition strikes, which began in March in an effort to halt the power grab by the rebels known as Houthis, also continued on Tuesday across Yemen, targeting positions of the rebels and their allies.

Despite the airstrikes, the rebels had advanced toward the southern port city of Aden over the past weeks and engaged in heavy ground fighting with rival forces in several cities across Yemen. But in a counter-offensive, pro-government fighters managed to capture the city of Dhale and also the command center of the 33rd Armored Brigade, officials said.

The brigade, which once controlled the city, is one of the country's largest army units. It is loyal to ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is allied with the rebels.

In capturing Dhale, pro-government fighters also seized large weapons' and ammunition caches, armored vehicles, and Katyusha rocket launchers, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Footage aired on Dubai-based Al-Arabiya network from Dhale showed fighters in one armored vehicle flying the flag of once-independent South Yemen.

The pro-government forces in the south are allied with exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, but also want an independent southern state. Dozens of fighters - both from the pro-government side and the Houthis - have been killed in intense clashes the past two weeks. Fighting between the two sides was still underway Tuesday on the outskirts of Dhale, the officials said.

The capture of Dhale - the gateway to Aden - is the first major achievement by pro-Hadi forces since March 26 start of the coalition airstrikes.

Hadi's government in exile has declared several provinces of Yemen disaster zones, including Dhale, where all basic services have collapsed. Due to the violence, most Yemenis now face severe shortages of fuel, water, medicine and food.

The U.N. estimates that at least 1,037 civilians, including 130 women and 234 children, have been killed between March 26 and May 20.

Tuesday's airstrikes hit Houthi positions and Saleh's forces in at least five cities, including the capital, Sanaa, and Aden - where rebels have deployed large forces.

As fighting continues, hopes are dwindling for a political resolution for Yemen. The peace efforts also received a major blow this week after U.N.-sponsored negotiations due to take place in Geneva were indefinitely postponed.

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